Du Min Gyu sat alone inside his tent, sipping tea as he ruminated on the days events, staring at Kai’s weapon, all that remained of his disciple. The reports sat in a neat stack at the corner of the table, each page read several times as he had spent the day frantically searching for inconsistencies, and when unable to find any, he had resorted to bullying soldiers, interrogating them as to their whereabouts and the sequence of events that had led to Kai’s death.
The story that he had pieced together differed only slightly from the reports, Kai holding the hill as the anvil against the Defiled while Akanai rode in over the river as the hammer, thoroughly routing a cavalry force that outnumbered them with minimal casualties. A clever usage of the odd creatures these barbarians rode, a good stratagem that had worked well, but in the end, the battle had cost Min Gyu his first Disciple, and that was unacceptable to him.
The death should not have come as a great surprise to him. For weeks, he had followed his jade compass, keyed to Kai’s blood, forever pointing in his direction since it’s creation decades ago, a yearly ritual for him to meet with Kai and his family to refresh it. The compass had stopped working several days ago and he had prepared himself for the worst, but hearing it confirmed so callously had raised an anger in him that he had not thought possible. An old, world-weary man, that he was able to feel so many powerful emotions came as a surprise, and he found himself consumed by them
For all Kai’s faults, he was devoted to his family and Min Gyu had been part of it ever since he had accepted little Kai as his first disciple. Smiling at the memory of the young boy kneeling at his doorstep for days on end, begging to be taught by the vaunted Hero of the Empire. Seeing only a spoiled child of luxury, he had dismissed Kai and ignored him for days, but he had not given up, kneeling in the mud and rain, unflinching and unwavering for almost a week before Min Gyu had finally relented, offering to test the boy.
The tests had been harsh and grueling to the extreme, a measure to dissuade Kai, send him back to his mother’s teat, ridding Min Gyu of the inconvenience of a disciple. He was a private man, and preferred his solitary life, always training to improve himself and reach the pinnacle of strength, with no time or inclination to deal with others, family or otherwise. The testing went on for weeks, Kai failing over and over again, his clothes torn, his body battered, his pride trampled and still he returned each morning, carrying a home cooked meal for his teacher, always happy to begin the arduous testing.
Somewhere in the midst of all the testing, he had grown fond of the boy, only realizing it after Kai succeeded for the first time, standing in horse stance for three hours, carry buckets of sand in the sweltering heat. The jubilation on the boys face had been mirrored in his heart, and without understanding why, he had immediately told the boy to kneel and kowtow, formally naming Kai his first disciple.
Kai had grown into a dutiful and powerful young man under his tutelage and had repaid him by treating him as an esteemed family member. He had swelled with pride at Kai’s promotions through the ranks, sat at a seat of honor during his wedding, and been the first to hold his son at the full month’s ceremony. Now that prideful, stubborn boy had died a man, a soldier, killed in battle with not even a corpse left behind, and Min Gyu had lost the closest thing to a son that he would ever have.
Without little Jin Tok here, there was no one to perform the funeral rites at Kai’s final resting place of his disciple, to kneel in place for seven days, keeping incense lit at all times, and pray once every seven days after. To send slaves to do so would be an empty gesture and, as his Mentor, his hands were tied in the matter. How could the Mentor kneel for the disciple, or wail in public at his passing?
In a fit of rage, he smashed aside the teapot, sending it hurling to the ground, his cup following soon after. Breathing heavily, he sat in his chair and held back his tears as Kyung entered the tent to ensure there was no threat, before quickly scurrying about to pick up the shattered pieces of porcelain and tea leaves, soaking up the water with his cloak, all in complete silence. After the mess was cleaned, Kyung signaled that all was ready and quickly stepped out, as Min Gyu allowed his tears to flow freely, the private display of weakness all that he could afford his Disciple.
There would be a reckoning for his death, Min Gyu would make sure of it. Composing himself, he stepped out of his tent, directing his attentions to the aide that had been provided to him. Instead of lowering himself to speak to her, he spoke to Kyung. “Have the little aide guide us to where my Disciple died.” His venerated status had been greeted by a mere Senior Captain, who then fobbed off this half-beast child on him, all a backhanded slight to his honor but he kept his temper. If blood was to flow, he would not spare a single one, but he would need justifiable and defensible reason to do so.
The girl led him dutifully through the camp and across the hill without a word, a slave following at her heels. He took stock of the camp as they strolled easily, his hip throbbing in pain after the day of rest. Odd how the body could push on when there was need but now that he had rested, it was all the more difficult to continue, age having rendered his body weak and frail.
While there were some deficiencies in the camp that could be easily fixed, overall he was quite surprised by how defensible the location had been made. A high hill overlooking a grassy field, water in two directions, and mountains in a third left only a single approach for most standard armies. The tents were neatly clustered together in the middle of camp, surrounded by cooking fires and defensive emplacements, fences, ditches, and embankments, all positioned to hide the light from their fires. Open areas to the north and south housed their furred mounts, complacent animals that groomed each other in groups, making squeaking noises of contentment as they sunned themselves upon the grass. Wonderfully stable creatures to ride, nothing like being bounced around on horseback, he decided that he would procure a few for the return home.
The mood of the camp was one of relaxed efficiency, the mercenaries and soldiers working together with little disruption, keeping the camp safe and ordered. Idle soldiers gambled in groups and moped alone as they were inclined to do, many moving out of the way or stopping in their tracks to offer a salute, but the barbarian mercenaries hardly batted an eye at his passing, not even moving aside, requiring his guards to forcibly clear the way through the crowds.
After a particularly heated encounter in which his guards almost came to blows with the mercenaries, the situation defused with a word from their tiny guide, Kyung approached his elbow, projecting his deep, gravelly voice for all to hear. “Master, these savages disrespect you with their actions. Allow this lowly slave to kill a few and educate them on how to properly greet a man of your venerated status.” Glaring viciously at the mercenaries, Kyung was growling once again, unable to contain his inner beast. His slave’s eagerness for blood almost brought a smile to his face as he toyed with the thought of allowing his guards to vent their frustrations. They had spent weeks upon the dusty roads, traveling with all haste, following his compass without detour through thick forests and hills, abandoning their horses days ago, the beasts no longer able to continue through the terrain. Between the bugs and wild beasts, as well as the constant threat of ambush, none of them were in any mood to be slighted.
Unfortunately, while these mercenaries were barbarians, they were barbarians who served the Emperor which at the very least earned them their lives. Weakness could not be shown, but the mercenaries had retreated at the words of a child, likely to have grated on any warrior. Ignoring Kyung’s words, he continued to follow the child, taking note of the number of half-beast warriors in the camp.
Too many, especially for a force this size, with only a single slave to be found, following behind his little aide. Disregarding the soldiers, the ratio of humans to half-beasts was almost 1 to 1, if not in favor of the half-beasts. While they had their place in the Empire, for so many free half-beasts to be united and armed was troubling. Again he spoke to Kyung, having him relay his questions to the girl, and listened to the enthusiastic answers, his little aide more than happy to boast. That these savages referred to themselves as ‘Khishigs’ rather than as citizens of the Empire was alarming, more so given the fact that they hailed from the Saint’s Tribulation mountains, the territory of a powerful and mysterious Ancestral Beast. Was this supreme being hoarding other ancestral beasts, building an army, sending out their children to be tempered in battle? While perhaps some would say it was a great leap of logic, he attributed his long life of 107 years due to his overwhelming paranoia, and made a note to send someone to investigate their history.
The Imperial Defense Forces were a matter of some debate at the moment, many proponents in the Central and Eastern provinces insisting that the payments made to them only helped to foster future rebels, arming them with the Empire’s coin. Many claimed that any loyal citizen wishing to defend the provinces would have no issue with joining the Imperial Army or swearing an oath, but Min Gyu thought it too extreme. For one thing, the cost of training and supplying a standing army capable of defending the province would likely beggar the Emperor. Mercenaries mostly brought their own armor, weapons, mounts, and supplies, only needing to be paid for time served, whereas soldiers were paid regardless of the circumstances, and a militia force would be no different from the current system. A compulsory oath of obedience to the Empire was a situation rife for exploitation, and would see the Empire overrun within years.
He respected the mercenaries of the Imperial Defense Forces, but to promote an unknown soldier to the rank of Lieutenant General based only on the results of a single battle had been far too hasty, the Northern Marshal far too impetuous with his rewards. The woman was too proud, refusing to come greet him even though he technically outranked her and could wrest command from her. It would be far too troublesome to do so of course, needing to answer to the Marshal and fill out the requisite papers, not worth the effort, but still the woman should show some respect for her betters.
“We are here, Lieutenant General. This is where the brigadier fell.” Pointedly ignoring the girl, he left her for Kyung to deal with and strode forward, taking in the sights. There was nothing but the battle scared remains of grass and churned dirt, the area the same as any other, but the significance of this tiny plot of land made him feel small and helpless. This was the site of Kai’s death.
There would be no prayer chanting from the monks, no procession of family and friends, no crying children or mourning wives. There was only an old man, too proud to cry in public, too stubborn to mourn and appear weak, standing without any outward emotion at the site of his Disciple’s death. Waving his hand to his slaves, they quickly brought forth an incense burner and offerings, Kyung handing him three joss sticks, already lit, the fragrant, sweet, woody scent filling his nostrils. Standing there, Min Gyu held the three sticks, fanned out nicely in front of him, feeling as though it were an empty, worthless gesture. Kai was dead, what did it matter if he left fruits out or burned incense?
His sorrow mounting within, he stood there staring out at the lush forest scenery, his mind empty as the joss sticks burned down to a nub, more than thirty minutes passing by and still he stood, unable to come to terms with Kai’s death. This was supposed to have been on a joyous trip for Kai and his son, watching little Jin Tok compete at the Society, a rite of passage for many future heroes of the Empire. Instead, Kai had died out here, far from home and his loved ones, without even the soldiers Min Gyu had assigned to him. It was a travesty, and even if he could find no fault in the reports, that did not absolve the barbarian general of blame.
Throwing down the burnt out sticks, he motioned for Kyung to hand him new ones, quickly lighting them and placing them upright into the soil of the incense burner, before abandoning all sense of propriety and speaking harshly to the Khishig girl. “Bring Lieutenant General Akanai here. I would have words with her.”
Taken by surprise, the girl looked up from her childish games, covertly playing odds and evens with her slave at a small distance. Such disrespect for the dead. “Ah, that is not possible. The Lieutenant General is out on patrol and will not return until dinnertime.”
With no outlet for his anger, his thoughts turned murderous as he fumed within. If this was the level of organization and responsibility required to earn such a rank, then the Northern Province was doomed. What was to happen to the soldiers should she fall in battle? Were they to wait here until the day they died? A general was responsible for every soldier under her command, a pillar upon which the morale of her soldiers relied upon. To risk her life on a patrol, leaving only a Senior Captain in command was simply atrocious and negligent behavior.
Swallowing his rage yet too angry to dare risk speaking, he internally messaged Kyung who relayed his words with a sneer. “Little girl, when your commander returns, you will see that she reports to my master, else I shall show her how little her rank means to me.” He continued to try to intimidate the little aide, but to her credit, she seemed unafraid and unintimidated, simply returning to her games with a shrug.
Putting everything out of his mind, Min Gyu returned to watching the incense burner, the joss sticks slowly burning down, replacing them when they were little more than smoking stubs, all that he could do for his dead disciple. It was through teaching Kai that he had learned the joy of guiding a young mind, but the foolish boy had always placed too much emphasis on personal strength, never relying on his soldiers. Min Gyu had lectured the boy time and time again, one man cannot hold back a thousand, no matter how strong he was. In order to protect the citizens of the Empire, soldiers would be needed as well as experts, the strong and the weak working together. it was only through strength of unity that the Empire managed to hold back the Defiled. When the outer provinces faltered, the central province would step in to aid, without expectations of reimbursement. Only as one could the Empire withstand all of their enemies, and rebels and dissidents were the greatest threats to the survival of the Empire.
And now, another soldier had fallen in defense of the Empire, made weaker for the loss. A brilliant warrior, not even 45 and already a Brigadier, Kai had once had a promising future ahead of him, but that had all come to an abrupt end, out here in the northern wilds. Time passed, and he changed the joss sticks every half hour, the oily smoke clinging to his robes despite the wide open space. After some hours, his little aide began setting up a chess table, the nerve of the little mongrel, but a harsh word from him dismissed them, Kyung warning them only to return with Akanai, the lack of title a poorly veiled insult.
At some point Kyung brought him lunch, and Min Gyu ate mechanically, barely even tasting the food. His hands were covered in ash, the incense burner almost full, and still he continued to burn the joss sticks. There was a moment where they had run out, but a few words and the soldiers were fighting to bring some for him to burn, the rank and file gathering to pay their respects as they should. They chatted of Kai’s exploits, but they were few and often repeated, and there were even muttered grumbles of how he had failed to protect his soldiers. He made note of the soldiers who grumbled, but otherwise left them alone. Complaining was a soldier’s lot and Mother-given right, and were it not for his sharp hearing, their words would have gone unnoticed.
It wasn’t until he was in the midst of dinner that Akanai arrived with the little aide, along with several, fully armed mercenaries, all of them striding up without a word. Kyung and his guards moved to intercept her until his meal was done, and without breaking stride, she single-handedly swatted them aside, easily defeating his slaves one by one as if they were children, avoiding serious injury, leaving several of them groaning as they lay on the ground. With that impressive display of strength, much of his anger melted away, his resolution for justice unable to stay heated in the face of stifling proof. If she had wanted Kai dead, she would have legally killed him in single combat. There would have been no need for elaborate and over complicated plans to have him killed in the line of duty, nor was she worried about offending others, as she so aptly demonstrated. Kai had only met his fate, dying a soldier’s death, too young, too soon for Min Gyu to accept.
The little aide quickly produced a chair for Akanai and was dismissed with a wave, moving back to watch the proceedings along with the other mercenaries. He continued to eat his noodles, studying his opponent, sizing up this barbarian general. Dressed in soft, black leather armor lined with black fur, her clothing seemed a second skin, her leggings almost indecent. With strong facial features and a stern bearing, she sat with her back ramrod straight yet still giving the illusion of being at ease, her fingers interlocked atop the table, staring right into his eyes. Her attitude demanded obedience, her gaze sharp and confrontational, she was a beautiful and thorny flower, emanating with pride and anger.
Sighing inwardly, Min Gyu offered a small complaint to the Mother at the injustice she inflicted upon her natural children. This woman was older than he yet appeared young enough to be his great granddaughter. He envied the long lives of the half-beasts, something he grew more bitter over as age continued to rob him of his strength, but what good was long life without family to share it with? The lesson had been learned too late, and now he was left with nothing but a worthless weapon, a stark reminder of the boy he had raised and the man that he had become.
Putting aside his grumblings, he continued to eat in leisure as the silence wore on, comfortable in the status quo, enjoying the inaudible power struggle between the two of them, a worthy opponent. Her attitude spoke volumes, that she had come to meet him not because he had demanded it, but because she wished it, and was waiting for him to acknowledge and greet her. However, to greet her first meant that he took a weaker position, but he could tell that she was stubborn enough to sit here all night.
Unfortunately for her, so was he, and he was far more practiced with veiled insults and silent struggles. Motioning to one of his still conscious slaves, he signaled for more food to be brought to feed both himself and the General, as well as the little aide and her slave, flipping the situation. No longer was he a guest in her camp, but rather she a guest at his table. She took the gesture in stride, whether graciously accepting the change in position or just accepting the food, he could not tell. A worthy opponent.
His dinner finished and his hip twinging in pain, he had one of his slaves fetch his pipe, packing it full and leisurely puffing away, enjoying the sweet, musky smoke, letting the medicine do its work and relieve his pain as he reminisced of better times spent with better company. The little aide once again set up her game of chess and a sharp look from him set her to grumbling, but a second look from Akanai had her sheepishly putting the board game away as she whispered condolences to her slave. Foolish child, playing at being friends with her slave. A slave’s place was to serve and to treat her as a friend would give rise in resentment and unhappiness when ordered to carry out unpleasant tasks. Better to have clear delineations in treatment and allow the slave to know her place.
His mood lightened as he continued to smoke beneath the heavenly canopy of stars, staring up into the stars of the night sky, wondering if Kai was looking down upon him at this very moment. A story he had heard in his youth, some claimed that the stars were windows to the Mother’s cove, where she stayed and watched over her children and creations, the twinkling stars signs that she was looking through her windows at them. It was a child’s fancy, but as good an explanation as any. Perhaps they were giant ever-burning fires, to light up the night sky, an even more fanciful idea, causing him to chortle to himself.
His attentions returned to the little aide, standing silently behind Akanai with a sulky pout upon her face, her slave clutching the chess set to her chest, her little cat ears pressed against her head. He rather liked the expressive ears and tails of half-beasts, amusing to him to see their emotions so openly displayed. Cocking his head, he studied her oddly familiar face, unable to place where he had seen her before. His pipe in his mouth, he continued to smoke in peace, his mind fixated on identifying the girl.
On the floor where his guards had moved him, Kyung groaned quietly as he regained consciousness, his head in his hands as he tried to stand. Quickly looking at his prized slave to ascertain his condition, his memory jolted in recognition of the little aide’s slave. Slapping hard against the table, he roared in delight. “Of course, of course, you are of the same lineage as Kyung! I bought and trained you for Jin Tok, you were to protect him during the contest, a talented little slave. What are you doing here?” A goofy grin was spread across his face, delighted that he had remembered who she was, but he quickly returned to a stoic, stern look, anger quickly rising up in his chest.
These Father-damned barbarians let Kai die alone and then they plundered his valuables? They stole his slave and flaunted her in front of him! Smacking the table once more, he broke the tiny piece of travel furniture and roared, this time in anger. “You will return Kai’s property to me immediately or I will see you all dead!”
Summoning the Divine Wind, the air around him began to move, slowly, ponderously, slowly building up speed as he readied himself to lash out and kill. These savages had no respect for the dead, and he would pile their corpses upon Kai’s death grounds as high as they would stack, a tribute in honor of his memory.
Standing tall, he watched as Akanai narrowed her eyes, still seated and calm. “I refuse. Li Song is a Khishig and -”
“Then die.” The world exploded into motion as everyone reacted to his words, and a tranquil vigil quickly degenerated into chaos and violence.
Excellent. He needed to work out a few of his frustrations.
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